If you follow any prepping or survivalist blogs, you’ve surely heard of pilot bread, the bread that can outlast an apocalypse. Our guide to pilot bread will tell you everything you need to know about this miracle food, including its history, recipes, cooking methods, and where to find it in stores.
What Is Pilot Bread?
Pilot bread is just another name for hardtack, a food product that’s been around for over a thousand years, since the time of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. It’s an extremely hard and dense bread used as rations for sailors and soldiers because it never spoiled. Those qualities explain its usefulness and continued use even today.
History of Pilot Bread
Hardtack was easy and cheap to produce, and, as long as it was kept dry and away from rats and other vermin, it lasted indefinitely. That’s why its use in military rations continued until World War II, even after more advanced preservation methods came along. Several factors explain its long history.
One small piece of hardtack can contain over 100 calories, depending on the recipe, and 17th-century sailors in the Royal Navy would receive a pound of it as their daily food ration. It was hearty while providing essential energy to continue their work.
Original hardtack has a bland flavor and a dense texture. Many people refer to hardtack as crackers or biscuits, as the texture is somewhat similar. To make hardtack soft enough to eat, soldiers would soak it in coffee or water, or they’d use the butt of their rifle to grind it down or break off chunks small enough to eat.
The longer hardtack sat around, the harder it became, and the same rations were often reused from war to war because they never went bad. According to legend, hardtack from the Civil War was still in use during World War 1!
The name “pilot bread” is one of many variations of the name for this common food, and it’s the one used by most modern brands and bakers. Originally, the “pilot” in the name referred to boat captains; later, when hardtack became survival rations in airplane pilot emergency kits, the name was cemented and has been used ever since.
Alternate names you might hear include pilot crackers, sea bread, Brewis, and (amusingly) molar breakers.
Modern Uses of Pilot Bread
Perhaps unsurprisingly, pilot bread is still a staple in remote areas, such as Alaskan villages, that have a hard time getting fresh bread. In fact, Alaska is the number one consumer of modern pilot bread brands. Most households have at least one can of it in their pantry in case of emergency, and many people still eat it every day because it’s less expensive than normal bread.
In other parts of the country, pilot bread is bought and made by outdoors people, survivalists, and preppers—anyone who needs food to last without electricity or modern amenities.
Pilot bread is calorie-rich but doesn’t provide much in the way of vitamins and minerals. In other words, you can’t survive on pilot bread alone without significant health issues. Pilot bread must be combined with or accompanied by other food sources, so keep that in mind while you’re stocking your fallout shelter.
How to Make Pilot Bread
If you aim to reproduce a historically-accurate version of hardtack, you probably already have all the ingredients you need. Originally, hardtack consisted of nothing but water, flour, and salt. Typically, the ratio is about 3:1, so three cups of flour for every one cup of water.
The best way to make historical hardtack is to start out with however much flour you want to use, add a couple of pinches of salt, then slowly add in water as you mix it with the flour by hand. You want your dough to be dry but pliable, with a texture like dried out Play-doh.
Once you’ve created your dough, roll it out on the table until it’s about 1/3-inch thick. Cut your dough into squares about 3 inches square. Do this before you bake, because you won’t be able to easily break this hardtack into pieces when it’s finished. Use a fork to pierce the surface of the squares several times, until they resemble crackers.
The traditional method of cooking hardtack involves baking it multiple times to leach out all the moisture. Luckily, you can achieve the same effect in a modern oven by baking the pilot bread once, then leaving it in the oven after you turn it off, so the heat slowly dissipates. Once the bread is cool, it will be rock solid.
If you live in a humid environment, you might need to use a food dehydrator to dry out your pilot bread fully. However, the longer you store it, the drier it will get, so you can skip the extra steps if you don’t plan to eat your pilot bread anytime soon.
If you want a version that’s a little more palatable but still won’t go bad even post-apocalypse, contemporary recipes include honey or advise topping it with peanut butter or preservatives before eating. Pilot bread shouldn’t be eaten alone unless you don’t have anything else.
There are less-authentic recipes for a type of pilot bread that still outlasts traditional bread, but isn’t suitable for bomb shelters or bug-out bags. These versions contain butter, sugar, milk, and other perishable ingredients.
You’ll need to properly store your homemade pilot bread if you want it to last until TEOTWAWKI (The End of the World as We Know It, a common prepper acronym). Keep it in an air-tight container like a can or vacuum bag, and store it someplace cool and dry.
Preferably, your pilot bread will stay below 60-degrees Fahrenheit until you’re ready to eat it, so you can keep it in a cellar or underground shelter to maintain that temperature. If you’re unable to provide climate control, your pilot bread should still be alright as long as you don’t unseal it. Moisture is the biggest killer of pilot bread!
Pilot Bread Recipe: Tundra Tostadas
Out of all the states in our great country, Alaska is the one that consumes pilot bread the most, and that’s a given when you think about how prepared they need to be all the time.
With that said, they have also developed a more delicious way to enjoy pilot bread for those who can’t stand eating it by itself. You can lightly toast the pilot bread to make it a little more edible then add all sorts of ingredients to it.
One great combo consists of adding pinto or black refried beans, some leftover meat – preferably chicken (but you can add just about any type of meat that your heart desires) – very thinly shredded lettuce, ripe and thinly sliced avocado, your preferred type of shredded cheese, sour cream, and salsa or any other sauce of your liking.
Add the ground meat to a skillet over medium heat. Cook, breaking into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until browned. Remove grease. Add onion and seasonings and cook an additional few minutes.
Add the refried beans to a microwave-safe bowl, or a small skillet over medium heat. Stir in a small scoop of sour cream. Cook until warmed through. Finally, spread the beans over the pilot bread, and add the remaining concoction evenly to your liking. Enjoy!
Where to Buy Pilot Bread
If you’d rather purchase your pilot bread, either to prepare for an emergency or just to try it, you have a few options available.
The most popular brand of pilot bread is Sailor Boy, made by Interbake Foods in Richmond, Virginia. Despite the location of the factory, 98 percent of all Sailor Boy pilot bread is sold in Alaska. If you live elsewhere, you can find boxes of Sailor Boy on auction sites at a significant markup, and you’ll typically have to pay for shipping from Alaska.
Luckily, with the popularity of prepping and survivalists, it’s easier than ever to find other brands of commercial pilot bread. You can find all of the following brands on Amazon.
You can buy a resealable pouch of pilot bread crackers from EasyPREP for $. Each pouch is 25 crackers at 60 calories per piece.
This pilot bread comes in a food-grade mylar pouch, which can be used for cooking and other tasks once it’s empty. Unopened, EasyPREP pilot bread has a 25-year shelf life. Once the seal is open, you need to keep your bag someplace cool and dry if you want it to last.
EasyPREP pilot bread has a 2.5-star rating with only two customer reviews, so we couldn’t get an accurate picture of what customers think. According to one of the customers, the pilot bread crackers were too soft. The other reviewer received a bag full of crumbs and suggested different packaging.
Mylar pouches may be handy to have in case of an emergency, but they don’t offer much in the way of protection. That said, true hardtack is solid enough to withstand some rough handling.
Saratoga Farms makes a 30.5-ounce (or #10) can of pilot bread crackers for $$. One can contains 70 servings of 60 calorie crackers.
Every Saratoga Farms can contains an oxygen absorber, so as long as you store them correctly, they’ll last forever.
Four customers reviewed Saratoga Farms pilot bread, with an average rating of 3.2 stars. The taste is described as “okay,” and “not like Sailor Boy.” The price is a little high, even for such a big can.
Due to the large size, if you can find these cans in bulk for a lower price, you should go for it. Otherwise, we recommend finding a cheaper brand.
Future Essentials sells a two-pack of 9.9-ounce (or #2.5) cans of pilot bread crackers for $. Each can contains 12 dense crackers at 100 calories a piece.
According to the Amazon product page, a can of Future Essentials pilot bread will last 30 years, but the vacuum sealing and oxygen absorber used to preserve it means these crackers could last forever.
With a 3.9-star rating on Amazon, you can expect a can of Future Essentials to meet your expectations for pilot bread. According to customers, the crackers are thick but easy to eat and have a bland flavor that really begs for some sort of topping.
The cans are very small, and for the price, you can get a much bigger serving of pilot bread. If you’re low on space, or if you just want to try pilot bread for the novelty value, Future Essentials might be worth the price.
Mountain House pilot crackers come in a #10 can (30.35 ounces) for $$. One can contains 62 servings, and each serving is 60 calories.
One little quirk of Mountain House is that they use broken crackers as filler or padding in the can. So, in addition to the 62 crackers advertised on the can, you’ll also receive a handful of broken crackers stuffed into the empty spaces inside.
Mountain House pilot crackers have a 4.3-star rating, making them the most popular brand of pilot bread on Amazon. As far as we could tell, the only reason is taste. According to several customers, this pilot bread has a sweeter taste and a softer texture than other brands do.
With its large size, middle-of-the-road pricing, and positive reviews, Mountain House pilot bread is our recommended choice, especially for newbies.
If you’re a serious survivalist, or if you want a lot of pilot bread without breaking the bank, you should consider making it yourself. The pilot bread you see online is much more expensive than it was ever intended to be, and you’ll bankrupt yourself if you attempt to stock up on pilot bread before a disaster.
If you find a brand of pilot bread that we haven’t mentioned, take a look at the ingredients on the label before you buy. The fewer ingredients in the bread, the more likely it is to last forever. Anything containing milk, eggs, or other perishable ingredients will eventually start to spoil.
Pilot bread is essentially immortal, so long as you store it properly. For centuries, people have used pilot bread to sustain them during long voyages, natural disasters, and wars. Making your own pilot bread is quick and easy, with simple ingredients that are cheap and ubiquitous. As long as you have flour, salt, and water, you can have pilot bread in under an hour.
Purchasing pilot bread is a little more difficult unless you happen to live in Alaska. It’s meant to be inexpensive survival food, but the recent surge in popularity of survivalism and prepping have driven up the prices.
If you’re interested in pilot bread because you want to stock a fallout shelter or remote hunting cabin, you should also stock different spreads and sides to supplement your diet. Not only will that help mask the bland taste, but it will also ensure you’re getting all of the nutrition you need.
In any case, we hope you’ll give our pilot bread recipe a shot or try some of the products that we have mentioned above. For survival purposes, it’s a great addition to just about any stockpile, regardless of where you live. The choice is yours, but if it were for us, we’d be considering to add this to our personal stockpile right away given the fact that it practically has no expiration date.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to pilot bread, and encourage you to experiment with your own recipes!
Cheryl Huffman says
Thank you for publishing this article. It is very informative.
I grew up in Alaska and Pilot Bread was often a staple.
I wanted to find out about making it myself (because 20+ dollars a box is ridiculous for basic crackers) when I happened on this article.
I am giving homemade a shot. If it works out it will get vacuum sealed and stored.
Thank you again for all the background and reviews.
I’m really glad you’ve found this post useful. And yeah…$20+/ box is the textbook definition of a rip-off lol. Thank you for stopping by.
leif jenkiomson says
Growing up int the 40s and 50s, on the shores of Lake Michigan, we shared a summer cottage in Indiana with another family, really bare bones. Parents were teachers, so we spent the entire summer there. We were on a hill, back from the lake (probably 1/2 mile plus) and our water came from a well at the bottom of the hill, with a gas pump to a very small tank. Most cottages had a standard hand pump, with lots of sulfur, which ours lacked. You packed in the supplies. No one I knew made bread (the weight & bulk of supplies plus bad tasting water, and most of the cottages had no ovens). I was too young to pay attention to the brand, but the pilot bread barely lasted the 2 weeks between supply runs, anyway, and had egg in the ingedients. We brought in no bread (too fragile, too). It was kept in those old, large potato chip cans. Last fall trip, we brought in and stored a small supply. Made two week-end trips a winter, brought in more for the 2nd trip. (Brrr!) We kids begged for jam, one of the few sweets all summer. It got spread thin by parents!